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For 99 years, a sacred sport

A day of liturgy and prayer peaks with the cross dive and ends with a festival in honor of "Theofania," the manifestation of God.

By NORA KOCH
Published January 2, 2005


TARPON SPRINGS - For many of the thousands who will flock to the Epiphany City, Thursday will be a day of glorious Greek revelry topped by the thrill of the legendary cross toss.

But to the faithful, Epiphany is one of the year's holiest days, one steeped in generations of tradition and two millennia of divinity.

"Sometimes people forget it's not an athletic event, it's a religious event," said Vasile Faklis, a lifelong member of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral and the person handling public relations for this year's church celebration.

Each year Greek Orthodox dignitaries and up to 30,000 spectators come to Tarpon Springs' Epiphany, the largest such celebration this side of Greece.

The 99th Epiphany will be a typical one, said Emmanuel Gombos, who dove for the cross more than three decades ago and today is the chairman of the Epiphany celebration. That means a full day of liturgy and prayer, processionals, the ceremonial cross retrieval and afterward, partying Greek-style.

"There's no Epiphany that's a regular Epiphany," he said. "They're all special."

For the Velardocchia family, this year's Epiphany is especially blessed. Daughter Catherine, 14, has been selected as this year's dove bearer. She follows in the footsteps of her mother, Maria, and an aunt who carried and released the bird in 1981 and 1980, respectively. This also will be the first year that Catherine's brother, Anthony Velardocchia, 16, will dive for the cross.

"It's going to be a busy day, an exciting day, a day that we will remember forever," said Maria, a second-grade teacher at Tarpon Springs Elementary School. "Whatever is God's will, that's what will happen."

No one can remember a time when the dove bearer's brother retrieved the cross. But it's an honor just to have both children involved in this year's celebration, say Maria and her husband, Sal.

"If Anthony did retrieve the cross, then double the blessing," Maria Velardocchia said.

The church has been central to her children's lives since they were both baptized at St. Nicholas, and the Tarpon Springs High students have been at every Epiphany celebration since birth. Each joined the Levendia dance troupe at 5. At 8, Anthony became an altar server. Catherine took up choir at the same age.

Four generations of her family will watch Thursday when Catherine releases the dove before the archbishop tosses the cross into Spring Bayou.

The Epiphany has a strong family bond in this city's close-knit Greek Orthodox community, but it also has deep religious meaning.

On the Orthodox calendar, the day is called "Theofania," the manifestation of God. In Tarpon Springs, the day's traditions remain true to their origin in Christ's baptism in the Jordan River in 30 A.D.

Tarpon Springs' Epiphany will begin at 8 a.m. in St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, when the devoted will trickle in for Orthros, two hours of morning prayers and chants to prepare for the Divine Liturgy. After the service and sermon, Greek dancers will lead a procession down to Spring Bayou. There, Archbishop Demetrios, leader of the Greek Orthodox church in the United States, will bless the bayou and the boys will dive.

After the cross is retrieved, the congregation will go back to church to conclude the ceremony before the Glendi celebration in Craig Park.

The boy who finds the cross will be the star of the day. He will be one from a group of 45 boys, from 16 to 18, who have proved to their church that they are worthy. To qualify for the dive, the boys filled out a form, attended a religious seminar with a priest and wrote an essay about what Epiphany means to them.

The dive is important, but it's not about who is the strongest swimmer or who moves the quickest to catch the cross, Gombos said. He's been helping put on the day since 1975, and each year, he watches the dive and remembers his own.

"You remember the cold water, you remember the dove flying, the retrieval," Gombos said.

"Anyone who has dived for the cross, it feels like you're getting ready to dive again."

And for Gombos, watching the dive also leaves him with an uplifted spirit and a remembrance of why they are there.

While Epiphany may be the church's holiest day of the year, it's undeniably Tarpon Springs' largest event.

The crowd varies from year to year, depending on the weather and the day of the week, said police Sgt. Jeff Young.

The Police Department kicks into high gear for the day, with at least 30 officers of their own on the street plus about the same number assisting from other law enforcement agencies.

Whether visitors are Greek Orthodox or not, there for the sport of the day or the chance to pray, Gombos hopes they take part in the spirit of the celebration.

"I want them to walk to walk away with a religious message . . . (about) the baptism of Christ," Gombos said. "We've got to stop and remember his commitment to us."

Nora Koch can be reached at nkoch@sptimes.com or 727 771-4304.

[Last modified January 1, 2005, 23:55:18]


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